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Gaijin Mangaka:

A Constant Light

One spring morning, Berliac, the Argentinian-born, Berlin-based co-editor, contributor and cover-artist of the š! #25 ‘Gaijin Mangaka’ Issue, posted on Facebook: “Tonight, 5am, reading Akira for the 27th time. Tired but there’s only 693 pages to go.” You couldn’t get a clearer indicator of how deeply a certain manga or mangaka can affect comics-readers and turn them into dedicated comics-makers and life-long comics-believers.

Something extraordinary is happening right now in the wider global manga movement outside Japan, a further sea-change in its irrepressible revolution and evolution, and the special 25th issue of Latvian colour mini-format anthology š! captures a vital snapshot of this through 164 full-colour A6-size pages of brand-new work by some key current innovators working outside Japan. From the ceaseless two-way ebb-and-flow of influences between manga and Western comics, co-editors Berliac (below) and David Schilter have gathered an exciting crop of contemporary ‘gaijin mangaka’, so-called ‘foreign comics creators’, predominantly young writer-artists from Europe and North and South America.

All of them evidence in their practice the widely differing access and exposure to Japanese comics, and pop culture in general, which they grew up with and have subsequently discovered. They are not alone - others include Lala Albert, Julien Ceccaldi, Gabriel Corbrera, Sascha Hommer, Hellen Jo, Joe Kessler, Jonny Negron, Jillian Tamaki and Bastien Vivès to name but a few. All of them may be unanimous in their admiration for and inspiration from manga, but their own expressions in response are dynamically diverse and personal, and are all the stronger, and sometimes stranger, for this.

For several contributors here, whatever manga they could find in print and ideally in translation, even those which might be considered fairly standard mainstream fare in its homeland, would surprise and invigorate them so much, that they adopted and adapted their approaches as an arresting alternative to the conventions of their own mass-market comics production. For instance, American Ben Marcus recalls, “Manga always seemed alternative to American comics, so I didn’t realise there was a deeper, more abstract form of manga till recently. Growing up, manga seemed to be the weirder, more intense version of comics than I was used to seeing here in the States.”

Meanwhile in Spain, Andrés Magán (above) remembers reading lots of manga when he was young (late 1990s-early 2000s) but then found, “I got a bit bored because all the series I read were starting to repeat themselves, same structure, same characters with different names.” One picture is all it took to reignite his manga fixation: “A few years later I found an image by either Yoshiharu Tsuge or Seiichi Hayashi (I can’t remember which) somewhere online and it really caught my eye. From there I started doing some research and discovered all that wonderful stuff. I still find new exciting things from that era all the time.”

There has been a generational shift, thanks to the realisation that there are many alternative approaches to manga. For instance, GG (above) in Canada recalls, “I’ve been aware of alternative manga since I was a teenager but only had access to Japanese imports that were not in English.” Crucial to this change have been the translated editions of certain revelatory mangaka who emerged in the Fifties and Sixties. Some were published in English first by Raw and Catalan Communications in the 1980s, and since 2000 notably by Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, PictureBox and Breakdown Press. Among those masters cited by many of this issue’s participants were Tsuge and Hayashi, as Magán mentioned, as well as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Shigeru Mizuki and Yoshiharu Tsuge’s brother, Tadao Tsuge.

It would be inaccurate, however, to lump together all of these examples of Japanese creators as entirely ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’, even if they mostly began on the margins of the manga mainstream industry. Mizuki became a celebrity manga author and an expert on Japanese and international folklore, while his Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro manga for children proves a perennial hit, widely adapted and merchandised. In contrast, Yoshiharu Tsuge is intensely private and far from productive, but he is widely acclaimed in cultural circles and has had his stories adapted into movies. Sadly, relatively little of his work has been put into English so far. Certainly there are others who struggled to make their work and make a living and acquired at best a cult following.

Equally, the transformative role of the internet cannot be overstated, whether through fan-organised scanlations or investigating Japanese-language sites. Berliac confided, “I’ve known the work of Tadao Tsuge since around 2009, through downloads of untranslated scans.” These Western artists are often obsessives, determined to dig deeper: as Gloria Rivera (above) explains, “The more you do research, you end up at the ‘weird part’.” For her this included the special genre of Josei manga, made by and for adult women, which Rivera considers an alternative form in itself, in which “women are no longer in the background, or victims. They are given their own stories with true breadth. Although sometimes they can seem villainised, the discourse that comes attached with those characters has a profound effect on its audience.”

Coming from the academic and fine arts realm, in 2012 Portuguese Masters student ‘Hetamoé’ discovered the seminal Japanese anthology Garo (1964-2002), which was one home to all of the above-cited mangaka. She became fascinated by other Garo contributors from the later Seventies movement of heta-uma (‘unskilled-skilled’ or ‘bad but good’), championed by ‘King Terry’, pen-name of Teruhiko Yumura. “I was very interested in how girliness and cuteness could be expressed through the lens of rawness and ‘bad art’.” She felt an affinity with Yumura’s covers and comics in Garo as part of a “whole lineage of avant-garde 20th century art stemming from this idea that artistic truth can be found in raw, unskillful works that exist outside the conventions of what is perceived as good taste and virtuosity”.

Aseyn in France also singled out Shotaro Ishinomori, a hugely successful commercial mangaka, perhaps second only to ‘God of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka in production and veneration and a major influence on Katsuhiro Otomo. For Aseyn (above), “it’s important to be able to rely on a “History of making comics”, which reinforces your beliefs, so your mind is able to create more freely. It’s a story of masters and disciples.” One wonders how such Japan’s masters might view these idiosyncratic and experimental disciples from the West.

What is striking is the variety of stimulating and meaningful impact these different forms of manga have had on these fascinated comics creators outside Japan. Ben Marcus finds “manga is a much more satisfying visual language than the typical Western style. I’m attracted to the intensity of the manga narrative.” Berliac finds appealing “the introspective, sometimes plotless stories, and a certain kind of purposed roughness in the art.” Berliac and several others also point out a certain ‘cinematographic’ quality to panel composition and the slower, measured pacing in manga. In this respect, GG notes some overlap with French New Wave film-making. Andrés Magán admits, “I really like how there is no rush to tell something or to get to a conclusion. They take their time, they work on building an atmosphere and sometimes they focus a lot on the psychological aspect of the characters.”

The American artist Nou (above) has found that their examples have “allowed me to expand my horizon and find new ways to communicate my thoughts, and not approach narrative in such a linear way. I have always liked writing poetry and songs, so I’m close to finding my happy medium for how I want my comic dialogue to be written in the future.” Hetamoé found that the ‘heta-uma’ tradition “gave me the courage to shamelessly try out whatever I felt like, including the drive to emphasise a sensuous sequentiality over representational or narrative qualities.”

Andrés Magán particularly appreciates “how all those authors had the courage to push forward the language of comics and make really personal work in an industry as big and demanding as Japanese manga.” A mangaka’s singularity of purpose and vision inspires several of this anthology’s contributors. GG admires “how risky and playful someone like Seiichi Hayashi is in his manga. Taking bigger risks is something I definitely need to work on myself.” As another example, Vincenzo Filosa from Italy (below) found his greatest guide in Tadao Tsuge: “His comics spread a constant light that shows me the way as an author but also as an individual. Tsuge’s panels witness an urge to tell that is unparalleled by his peers and testify how powerful the depiction of reality can be. He’s always been the real “underdog” in the scene, he produced his work without compromises, never looking for any kind of fake success. He’s a model to me and I think he should be for any alternative author.”

To sum up, Gloria Rivera singles out a vital quality to aspire to: “a dedication to shouting into the void day after day, because you are saying the things you believe.” All would agree with Mickey Zacchilli’s comment on manga’s life-changing importance: “I would be a completely different cartoonist without it.”

One can imagine in the near future a reciprocal mirror-image version of this anthology showcasing Japanese and other Asian creators responding to new approaches from the latest in Western comics. The Belgian comics writer and theorist Benoît Peeters told me about a recent lecture he gave about European comics in Taiwan. When he introduced and projected comics by Frenchman Bastien Vivès, himself massively inspired by Japanese comics on this collaborative series Last Man for Casterman, Peeters noticed a large number of Taiwanese fans and authors in the audience eagerly snapping photos of Vivès work. And already Vivès is visibly influencing upcoming Asian creators, for example Tsuchika Nishimura in the fourth issue of Japanese anthology USCA or South Korean webtoonist Seokhan Jung in SM Tiger on the Lezhin site. In short, East to West, West to East, this cycle keeps renewing itself and renewing this ever-changing medium.

Posted: September 18, 2016

This was originally published as the introduction to the š! #25 ‘Gaijin Mangaka’ Issue, released in Latvia on 26 July 2016.

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š! #25 Gaijin Mangaka
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